No shit, dingus. Pardon my French, but in Carrie Rickey’s 1/15/12 New York Times article “Perfectly Happy, Even Without Happy Endings,” Hollywood once again shows its complete ignorance of its own origins. Still a rebellious teenager, the US film industry would rather pretend theatre doesn’t exist and that Hollywood sprang forth from itself, rather than admit that it actually inherited plenty of brains and good looks from its nerdy parents.
Louis B. Mayer once supposedly said, “Theatre is a flea up an elephant’s ass,” the elephant of course being Hollywood. More accurately — and what I tell my screenwriting students every semester — is that theatre is a 3000-year-long dog and motion pictures are a hundred-year-long hair on that dog’s tail; that maybe one day film will evolve to the point that it bears no resemblance to theatre but that day is still a long way off, and that budding filmmakers and screenwriters would do well to spend a little of their time in school studying theatre. Unfortunately film schools around the country, including the esteemed institution where I teach and of which I’m a graduate, seem intent on doing everything they can to shield their students from the power of live performance, ignoring theatre as inferior, obsolete, old-fashioned, insisting that the only legitimate form of narrative storytelling is film, all the while stealing from theatre on a regular basis.
In Rickey’s article we meet the latest example of a smug Hollywood cannibal: highly successful Hollywood producer Lindsay Doran, who discusses all the time, energy and resources she spent trying to figure out what makes the great Hollywood films so memorable and emotionally potent. She analyzed a lot of movies, consulted with market researchers and pop psychologists and concluded that, gasp, positive movies do not necessarily have happy endings (Casablanca, To Kill a Mockingbird, Titanic, et al). Indeed, the most powerful films of all time, she concludes, mingle accomplishment with great loss. In other words, “the accomplishment the audience values most is resilience.”
So far, so good, except that all of this has been stolen from theatre (Casablanca in fact was based on an unproduced stage play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s) and it’s embarrassing that Ms. Doran doesn’t even realize it. She’s now running around Hollywood getting paid to give self-help seminars to producers as though she’s solved a great mystery; as though no one had thought of any of this before her; as though the poignant plots and character arcs of these great movies happened by accident. It’s bad enough that so many in the film industry still prefer to think the 3-act plot structure was invented by Hollywood during the 1940s studio era rather than being lifted directly from opera and traceable all the way back to ancient Greece. Now we’ve got Doran, casting herself as a great thinker and voice in the wilderness, realizing in her Hollywood vacuum that the best narratives are those in which people don’t necessarily get what they want but learn to survive anyway. Shocking. She could have saved herself a lot of time and energy by asking the nearest playwright.
A playwright might have advised her to simply spend an afternoon reading The Birth of Tragedy by Friederich Nietzsche (coincidentally mentioned in the same NYT issue in Alexander Star’s review of Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s book American Nietzsche, A History of an Icon and His Ideas) and Three Uses of the Knife by David Mamet, or skipping both books and going straight to the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita or the writings of the Buddha.
You see, Ms. Doran, the primary purpose of drama has always been to show unhappy people going through suffering to try and stop their unhappiness, experiencing complete and utter despair along the way, and learning that they’ll never be happy (even if they do accomplish their main goal in the plot) but that life is worth living anyway. Why? Because like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, total happiness is impossible to achieve. Hollywood stole its narrow definition of “happiness” from 19th century stage melodramas which said all anyone needed to be happy was a good spouse, a good job, and entry into the middle class. In other words, achieving the American Dream will make one happy. As you have discovered through your own convoluted and costly means, movies (and plays) that endorse this belief are fun but forgettable.
The memorable and positive protagonist is one who comes out the other end of her or his desperate journey loving life and wanting to go on anyway despite confronting loss, regret and learning that they’ll never get everything they want. This is called gaining wisdom. As I hinted at above, this unfortunate fact of human existence is also summed up by every major religion: to live is to suffer.
Any good playwright can tell you that audiences tend to feel healed and redeemed by watching someone else go through this tough journey to wisdom because it makes viewers vicariously wiser and prepares them for their own journeys. This powerful approach to narrative storytelling is nearly universal in Western culture going back to ancient Greece. Next time you’re stumped by a great cinematic question please start by ignoring Hollywood market researchers and your favorite pop psychologists, and asking the nearest playwright. You’ll likely get your answers there.
“So where does Ms. Doran go from here?” Rickey’s article asks you in its conclusion. Hopefully to see a few plays.
By the way, Ms. Doran, I can show you some killer spec screenplays that I promise you’re going to love. Seriously. Have your people call my people.
[images via nytimes.com]